Public Meetings Launch Redesigned Corps Study
by Reggie McLeod

Many environmentalists and river rats are skeptical of a reconfigured study by the Army Corps of Engineers, while many farmers are still uncritically supportive of expanding the lock-and-dam system, with or without a study. The new study will not consider any fundamental changes to the current lock-and-dam system.

The first Corps’ study of shipping needs on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers began in 1993 and found that no significant construction projects to expand the lock-and-dam system were justified. The economist who reached this conclusion was removed from the study and his bosses plugged phony numbers into his projections to make expansion look like a good deal. The bosses got caught, and they retired. The $50-million study was put on hold.

The redesigned and restarted study was introduced to the public at a series of five meetings in March. We attended the La Crosse meeting, on March 20, where the Corps introduced the new study, answered questions from the audience and took statements.

The new study promises to incorporate two of four recommendations of the National Research Council (NRC): to give equal consideration for wildlife resources and address the effects of the existing nine-foot channel.

The NRC also pointed out that forecasting river shipping for the next 50 years was not feasible. The new study will counter this criticism by developing a “scenario analysis,” a process that is yet undefined and has many Corps critics worried.

The NRC also pointed out that the study’s “Spatial Equilibrium Model” was incomplete. The Corps has decided that the model should be developed separately from the study. The impact of doing this is unclear, but it might be a way to avoid accounting for damage caused by shipping.

The new study also promises a “sustainable river system,” and includes a committee of stakeholders, including representatives of governmental and other organizations, who will help guide the process. However, one of the stakeholders introduced at the meeting, Gretchen Benjamin, of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told the audience that so far the states have had little opportunity to affect the design or course of the study.

The study is scheduled to submit an interim report to the Corps in July and come up with a “tentative plan” next winter. The plan will be introduced at another round of public meetings scheduled for next spring.

Meanwhile, shipping and agricultural interests are pushing to add funding for lock-and-dam expansion to the current national budget.

Reggie McLeod publishes Big River, an independent, monthly newsletter about the Upper Mississippi River: 800-303-8201.